The Kansas City Chiefs are known for their high-flying offense, but a defense that’s been terrific down the stretch wants to make a statement on Sunday.
Chris Jones has had enough disrespect.
His Chiefs defensive teammates, through their words and actions, clearly agree.
“We’re pissed off and composed,” Jones said. “That’s a Tyrann Mathieu quote. Pissed off and composed. That’s how this defense is. We’re pissed off but we’re so composed, doing our job at the highest level. But we’re so damn pissed off.”
This is music to Kansas City’s ears. A year ago, it was the fans who were pissed off in relation to the defense. The unit allowed 37 points in an AFC Championship Game overtime loss after ranking at or near the bottom of many defensive categories in 2018.
The time for change had come. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was replaced by Steve Spagnuolo. The base 3-4 was scrapped for a new, more flexible and aggressive 4-3.
A Super Bowl champion in the same role with the 2007 New York Giants, the 60-year-old brought his Boston accent to Kansas City after spending a year studying tape at the NFL Films complex in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
When Chiefs head coach Andy Reid called Spagnuolo to offer him the coordinator job, there was already a defined plan of how to go about business.
“What really helped was when Andy (Reid) and I were able to put together staff that was familiar with each other,” Spagnuolo said. “I didn’t have to spend time coaching the coaches. They knew exactly what the scheme was all about. I think they conveyed that really well to the players, and that helped initially to the chemistry of everything.
There was still a little rocky road early, and we expected that. We knew it was going to take into the season before we figured everything out, but thank God for the guys we have and the leaders. I’m talking about the player leadership, that they would continually keep guys focused on what we were doing and not jumping ship. When you do that, and guys can embrace each other and lean on each other, you can do something good.”
In the offseason, stalwarts Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Steven Nelson, Allen Bailey and Eric Berry were sent packing. General manager Brett Veach brought in Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu, Bashaud Breeland, Juan Thornhill, Emmanuel Ogbah, Terrell Suggs, Alex Okafor and Damien Wilson.
Throughout the summer, hope was high but internally, so was caution. The Chiefs knew the defense was a construction zone. It was going to take time. It required patience.
Patience isn’t something most have in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. When Kansas City’s defense struggled out of the blocks, it was seen as the anchor to the offense’s otherworldly talents.
In short, Patrick Mahomes was going to be charged with doing it all again.
The reality down the stretch has been far different. Before their Week 11 bye, the Chiefs surrendered 23.3 points and 143.1 rushing yards per game on 5.13 yards per carry, leading to a 7-4 record. Since then, including the playoffs, Spagnuolo’s crew has allowed 15.3 points and 94.4 rushing yards per game on 4.13 YPC.
“The players get the credit for that,” defensive line coach Brendan Daly told FanSided. “They’ve done a fantastic job all year of focusing each and every week on improving. Not worrying about what happened or what went on last week but what do we need to do to get better this week? They’ve bought in. They’ve done a fantastic job in terms of doing what we’ve asked them to do and taking ownership of things.”
To further illustrate the revival, consider this — Kansas City allowed a whopping 417 rushing yards on 6.22 YPC against Houston and Tennessee in the regular season. Against those same foes in the playoffs, the numbers drop to 179 and 4.07, respectively.
Since their bye week, the Chiefs are 7-0.
“We were not going to be perfect at the beginning of the year,” Jones said. “But as long as we’re perfect at the end of the year and we strive (for greatness) going into the playoffs, we could make a complete effort at winning a championship.”
The turnaround has multiple reasons. Above all, it’s the increased comfort within the complex scheme, along with Spagnuolo learning how to use the talent afforded him. It’s also the additions of Mike Pennel and Terrell Suggs, helping to offset the midseason losses of Ogbah and Okafor to torn pectorals.
Up front, Clark’s health has changed the formula for Kansas City’s defense.
After trading first and second-round picks to the Seattle Seahawks for Clark in April, Veach signed the 26-year-old to a five-year, $105 million deal. It seemed a bust early, with Clark totaling four sacks and five quarterback hits over the first 10 weeks of the season (he missed Weeks 8 and 9 with a pinched nerve and shoulder injuries).
Once healthy, Clark has been a menace. In the eight games since, the Pro Bowler has eight sacks and 14 QB hits. In the postseason, Clark caught Deshaun Watson three times while finishing off the AFC Championship with a diving sack of Ryan Tannehill.
“That’s my dog right there,” Jones said. “He’s a real one. He plays with a huge chip on his shoulder. Earlier in the year they were saying a lot about my guy. He wasn’t healthy, and they counted him out and they counted this defense out. We proved everyone wrong every time they counted us out.”
Still, nobody has been more impactful between the lines than Mathieu. The seventh-year safety and two-time All-Pro has lined up everywhere imaginable for the Chiefs, making it terribly difficult to identify what package they’re in. The 27-year-old has earned consideration for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, notching four interceptions, 12 passes defended and two sacks.
“Me and Spags got a really good relationship,” Mathieu said. “It’s really quite unique. It’s really built off of 100 percent honesty. I can remember the conversations we had during free agency and I think the way we’re playing right now as a defense is the vision he had. That’s the thing we talked about.
“He had these big goals for me personally and I’m so grateful for him, man. For him to put me in a position to be an All-Pro again and to put some of my best football on tape. He’s been instrumental. He’s so detailed in his work, and he’s committed, man. Every single day we can count on getting the same guy. The consistency and detail that he has worked, and it’s helped me personally in my career and I think it’s definitely helped our team.”
All told, the Chiefs have been hitting their collective stride over the past two months. With Mahomes’ knee and ankle injuries behind him, along with the improved defensive output, Kansas City has presented a different challenge than what had been previously showcased.
Now, the Chiefs are one game away from winning their first Super Bowl in 50 years. Much of the talk leading up to Sunday has centered around Kansas City’s aerial circus and whether the defense can slow down San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and his brilliant schemes.
In the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers only threw eight times as Raheem Mostert led a rushing attack which amassed 285 yards and four touchdowns.
After limiting Derrick Henry, the league’s rushing champion, to 69 rushing yards on 16 carries two weeks ago, the Chiefs understand the importance of corralling the Niners’ speedy, downhill backs.
“It always comes down to gap discipline,” Daly said. “In my world, it always comes down to basic technique and fundamentals. It comes down to playing with your hands, it comes down to setting the edge, it comes down to power inside and not allowing cutbacks on the backside. Essentially it’s everyone doing their job at a high level.”
Sixty minutes from a Super Bowl. For Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid, it would be a career-maker. For Spagnuolo, it would be affirmation of a great hiring 12 months ago.
For his defense, it would be the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work.
Pissed off and composed. The two terms used by Jones to describe his defense’s angst.
His coach can get behind the message.
“They seem a little contradictory, don’ t they?” Spagnuolo said laughing. “I’ll tell you what though, when you say it and describe it, I’d be very happy if they all went out there and played pissed off and composed. I think that would be a good thing.”